Cast: Ben Foster, Chris O'Dowd, Jesse Plemmons, Dustin Hoffman
Director: Stephen Frears
Running Time: 1 hour 43 minutes
by Jericho Cerrona
In fashioning a biopic about former professional cyclist Lance Armstrong, director Stephen Frears forgoes backstory, exposition, and context altogether in lieu of plunging us into the fractured headspace of his subject. In this case, it's a subject whose headspace is riddled with hubris and an unbending need to succeed at all costs. But is getting into the mind of Armstrong, much less understanding what motivates him, even remotely interesting, and furthermore, does the film even go there? The Program, adapted by screenwriter John Hodge from journalist David Walsh's book Seven Deadly Sins: My Pursuit of Lance Armstrong, is on level-footing when allowing actor Ben Foster the opportunity to embody Armstrong as a man with a single-minded obsession and gargantuan ego, but less sure of itself when delineating why he blood-doped his way into seven Tour de France victories and then persistently lied about it. The film isn't interested in providing insightful revelations concerning the now well-known narrative. Instead, it's focus lies in allowing us to spend time in the company of a legitimate sociopath. Whether that's successful storytelling or not is debatable, but Foster's chameleon-like performance isn't something that should be dismissed. He's that good.
Thematically, there are some interesting motifs to examine here, but Frears, whose work includes the neo-noir gem The Grifters and cult favorite High Fidelity, seems generally unconcerned with the particulars of the story. For one thing, the perspective is frequently shifting from scenes of Armstrong doping and cheating the system to that of journalist David Walsh (Chris O'Dowd) and a risk insurer played by Dustin Hoffman growing increasingly suspicious of his improbable winning streak. This splitting of the difference means that it's difficult to tell whose story this is and in typical biopic fashion, who the audience should be rooting for. The truth, though, is that the Lance Armstrong narrative is a story without a hero. Instead, it begins to take on the feeling of a Frankenstein horror movie; complete with mad Italian doctor Michele Ferrari (Guillaume Canet) introducing Armstrong to erythropoietin (EPO), a banned kidney hormone that increases red cell levels. Since we are all well aware of Armstrong's nefarious lies, the material involving Walsh's righteous crusade to uncover the truth feels superfluous. More intriguing is the relationship Armstrong develops with fellow cyclist Floyd Landis (a solid Jesse Plemmons), a one-time teammate and Tour de France champion who eventually admitted to doping and helped propel tighter scrutiny onto the sport.
Honestly, whatever problems the film has--including a lack of genuine tension and emotional stakes--these issues are often overshadowed by Foster's unblinking commitment to making Armstrong as deplorable as possible while still managing to make him interesting. Apparently, the mercurial actor, best known for slipping into the skin of villainous characters (3:10 to Yuma, Alpha Dog) did some drug testing of his own in preparation for the role, and despite not physically looking much like the famous cyclist, he absolutely nails the essence of a monster who used his notoriety as well as his cancer scare in order to fool the world at large. Structurally, the lack of backstory; (there's no mention of Armstrong's childhood and thankfully, no flashbacks of him learning to ride a bicycle while fending off schoolyard bullies), allows Frears to concentrate on the simple rise and fall narrative. While this makes for a predictable formula, it also gives Foster the freedom to unleash a scarily raw performance without the typical context these types of films often wedge in to explain the behavior of their subjects.
Showing a self-destructive figure willingly fabricate, cheat, and lie over the course of an entire film without creating a sense of empathy is a tricky sell, and worse yet is the bleak picture painted here regarding the sport of competitive cycling, which knew this was happening and did nothing. But isn't this crucial to understanding the inherent hollowness of the idea of heroism and transparency in sports to begin with? If anything, Lance Armstrong perpetuated and reaffirmed our collective willingness as a country to look the other way as long as we get our American underdog story, which makes The Program far more terrifying than any horror film in recent memory.